Vampire Queen 8 - Bound by the Vampire Queen - Joey W Hill, page 26
That, too, was part of the test Rhoswen was executing, wasn’t it? Settling her seat further, Lyssa made an impatient noise, collecting her reins and pulling her mount away from the guardsman. Moving the palfrey into a pretty trot, she came to Rhoswen’s left side as Cayden swung up on his own horse on the queen’s right. As they moved away from the field, every squeal that split the air, the sound of earth thudding beneath hooves—hopefully it was earth, and not bones—was a hammer at her consciousness, screaming at her to jump into his mind again.
She ignored it, keeping her hands loose on the reins, her shoulders relaxed, even as her heart and gut were tight as two tangled fists. If Rhoswen got him killed, it didn’t matter if it kill ed Lyssa as well.
She’d come back and haunt her bitch sister for all eternity.
As Jacob kept up his dance with the horse, he started crooning in Gaelic. Calming words, a singsong chant he’d used with fractious and mistrustful mounts in the past. Whether or not it would have any effect on a kelpie, he knew nothing was going to get better until that bearing rein was released. It had been misused to deliberately goad the horse, the way cinching a strap over the testicles of a bull was done at rodeos to make them buck more ferociously. It proved Rhoswen as a hypocrite in her scorn toward humans. She was treating one of the creatures of her own world abysmally to serve her own purposes.
He put aside the anger, because the horse would pick up any negative feeling and feed off it. Plus, he was handling a creature that was not exactly a horse.
Every time those nostrils flared and expel ed a bill ow of flame, he had to stay clear, though more than once the heat seared his skin. He could smell the fibers of his tunic smoldering from proximity alone.
Vaguely, he was aware the Unseelie procession was filing down the hill side. They’d meet the colorful Seelie train at Caislean Talamh, the Castle of Earth, and that route would be lined with more Fae, celebrating and encouraging the riders. He would have liked to see all that. If he survived this, maybe he could.
“Another minute,” he gritted, to both of them. He needed the procession to be clear of the castle, giving him room to do what he needed to do.
The horse squealed, baring yellow teeth the size of his thumb knuckles. “I got it, you’re pissed.” Jacob grunted with the effort to hold fast to the bridle. He flexed his other hand, ready to go for his knife. It might not be wise to cut off the only thing controlling the horse, but he followed his instincts, as he always had. Gideon had often said there was a reason the words instinct and insanity differed by only two letters.
With two quick movements, he sliced through the bridle and cinch, and tore it all free. Catching a handful of mane, he twisted himself up onto the horse’s back, clamping down with knees and thighs, both hands buried in that long, long mane.
He’d expected the flame. It swarmed up over his hands, exploded and covered the stallion’s body, the heat searing through his clothing, hungry for his flesh.
Firewind was in motion, galloping pell-mell up the hill toward the castle. Those who’d gathered for the procession and lingered to watch his match with the kelpie now scrambled to get out of the way. Firewind moved in an erratic zigzag, so they had to be very quick, using wings as well as feet. Some only had time to throw their bodies out of the horse’s path as he clattered onto the drawbridge, a streaming bal of rust and black flame with enraged crimson eyes.
Hold on… Jacob hammered himself with the mantra, his jaw clenched, a strangled cry in his throat as the fire licked at his skin. The excruciating pain would shortly become lethal, the fire burning him to ash. If Rhoswen was right and a kelpie wouldn’t release its prey until it was drowned, then Firewind had to choose to let him off. It didn’t matter. Jacob wasn’t getting off until he’d accomplished the quest.
Instead, he trusted the horse’s nature, which wouldn’t care whether or not he was carrying an undrownable vampire. As a result, with an abrupt left turn, one that would have jerked his shoulder out of its socket if he hadn’t anticipated it, the horse gathered himself and leaped off the drawbridge.
Plunging into the moat below, Firewind scattered a pod of selkies. Jacob bounced down hard, gritting his teeth at the less-than-kind slam of the horse’s solid body against his testicles. The dousing of the fire was pure bliss, though. He suffered the abrasion of the water against the burns, but knew those would heal in a reasonably swift manner. Swimming strongly, the horse descended. The moat was so deep, he couldn’t see the bottom, which made him wonder if there was a bottom at all. The waters were populated by unusual fish, selkies, curious merfolk and even a pair of sea serpents of intimidating size.
They eyed Jacob with obvious relish. If the current predator got tired of him, he suspected they were ready to finish the job.
Jacob ripped his tunic at the neckline and managed to pul it all the way off, securing his hold on it and the mane a blink before the horse rolled.
Though Firewind did it several times, twisting and bucking in the water, Jacob kept his eyes closed, following the horse’s movement by instinct, knees and elbows in tight.
The kelpie made an underwater cry that reminded Jacob of an angry killer whale. The powerful body shuddered, rocked and convulsed, and abruptly his swimming became rocket charged. Glancing back, Jacob saw Firewind had shifted the back legs into a powerful tail, the front legs churning to help with the movement. His neck and head were extended like a thoroughbred in the final stretch.
Jacob moved with him, thrusting his body out over that elongated neck. He brought the wet tunic down over the waterhorse’s eyes and moved fast, tying it beneath the jawline, thank all the gods for vampire speed. Firewind screamed and rolled again, but Jacob pul ed in the slack and shoved himself back down the neck to grapple the mane and hold tight with his knees once more. On his way there, Firewind’s head snaked around. The kelpie bit his shoulder, sending a trail of blood inking away from them. Jacob wrenched free, got himself out of range.
He held both ends of the tied and ripped tunic like reins now, his palms clenched hard in the cloth to hold it fast on the animal’s eyes.
The horse swung around so fast Jacob didn’t see the wall of rock until it was too late. The crushing impact knocked his left hand loose, though the right held, tangled with mane as well as cloth. A strangled cry wrenched from his throat as ribs cracked, his left knee was pummeled into several pieces and his shoulder dislocated. The horse screeched his frustration, as loud as a banshee, even under water.
This was no horse. This was a creature of the night, a child’s nightmare, an equine version of the Hounds of Hell, its only intent to kill him.
Oh, bollocks on that. Boudiceaa had been the most ill-tempered hellion of a horse he’d ever known, with a true desire to murder anyone on her back.
This horse was male, which meant he should be far more reasonable.
Despite the blindfold, Firewind was headed back up to the top. He was probably going to burst into flame again. And whereas he’d been happy to try and dislodge Jacob under the water and crush him like a mallet shattered an oyster shell, aboveground he’d likely bind him to his back until he was a tiny pile of ash that Firewind released to the wind, along with the remains of the tunic blindfold.
As the kelpie broke the surface of the water, Jacob fumbled in the pouch that had been belted beneath his tunic, hoping the only thing he’d brought in anticipation of Keldwyn’s warning was still intact. It was.
There were gray spots in his vision. Unfortunately, vampires could pass out, if the stress on the body was too great and there was no ready blood supply on hand. Usually, he only needed to draw from his lady once every several days. It was becoming a daily occurrence here.
Don’t pass out. You’ll be eaten by sea snakes, and Lyssa will be seriously pissed at you.
The kelpie was tossing his head about, thrashing in the water. Firewind hadn’t counted on being too disoriented to find the bank right away, though he should manage it soon enough by smell, if he calmed down
Jacob expected something smug went through the horse’s mind like, What a dumbass. He wasn’t sure he didn’t agree.
They were a quarter mile from the rear wall of the castle, no longer part of the circular moat, but in one of the feeder tributaries. As the horse gained the solid ground, shifting back to four legs, he shook off like a dog, making the seaweed and shells in his mane slap Jacob’s hands. Then he gave a quick squeal, a bone-jarring hop that almost dislodged Jacob.
The good news was he wasn’t using the reputed Super Glue abilities to lock Jacob on his back, maybe because it only worked in the water, to make sure his passenger drowned, a moot point with a vampire. He also didn’t appear to be able to use his fire right away when he emerged from the water. A small but vital blessing.
So Firewind went for the nasty trick that the most temperamental and intelligent horses knew. He buckled, headed for the ground to roll to flatten Jacob like a pancake.
Jacob threw himself clear with a pained cry, right before the hooves would have kicked out on the turn and caved in the side of his skull.
As Firewind scrambled back to his feet, Jacob wrapped the hand of his dislocated arm in the trailing tail of the tunic. He let out an agonized grunt as he used the force of Firewind’s yank against it to pop the shoulder back in place. Using his other hand, he pulled the item out of the pouch belted on his bare waist. It wouldn’t have worked underwater, because the scent might have been masked.
Firewind had been too agitated when he was guiding him to shore, but now was the time to give it a try. His window of opportunity was the size of a postage stamp.
He’d asked the kitchen staff for the apples earlier in the evening, and they hadn’t been too grudging about it, though the narrow-eyed fairy cook made sure he didn’t take more than two. He’d made idle cuts in the apple with his knife as he talked to her about the proper way to marinate squash. Afterward, he discreetly dropped the apples in a bin of sugar, coating the fruit and then wrapping them up in a scrap of waterproof skin he’d found at the stables.
He’d learned to be prepared for almost any contingency, and the waterproofing would help seal in the flavor. A sugar apple had been one of Bou’s favorite treats at the Ren Faire, sure to mel ow her up when she regressed into foul temper and fear.
Keeping his arm up so the horse could scent the apple was an exercise in torment, since his ribs were broken and the shoulder hurt like a son of a bitch. It was amazing, what kind of pain a man could overcome when he knew it couldn’t actually kill him.
That great head turned toward him, those eyes drawing closer. Jesus. The blindfold had dropped so one eye was visible. The other crimson orb had enough heat and fire that the glow was faintly visible through the thick covering of the folded tunic. So either this would work, or he would draw back a stump.
As he expected, the horse wasn’t too careful about missing his hand with teeth, but at least they only sank into his palm and missed taking off some fingers. Vampires could survive amputation, but often the limbs or digits didn’t regenerate. Firewind didn’t keep gnawing on him, though. He drew back, apple in his mouth.
“You’re smart, strong and fast.” Jacob grunted.
“But you like sugar and apples, and you won’t move without direction if you’re blindfolded. You’re still a horse. Easy, there…” He fumbled for the second sugarcoated apple. The horse shifted, showed his teeth, shook his head again and backed against Jacob’s hold, pulling him a few inches across the ground. He stopped, gave a snort. Jacob could almost hear the click of connection in the horse’s diabolical brain. Lying there on his back, hand clutching the tunic, Jacob could be dragged.
Firewind’s ears perked up.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Jacob groaned. Those damn broken ribs would keep him from moving swiftly enough to shoot back to his feet and mount the horse again. If Firewind chose to drag him pell-mell through the country side, stomping on him until he was pulp inside a battered skin, there was little he was going to be able to do except let go, something he wouldn’t do.
Then he heard it. That haunting song, a sigh of sound that stirred a man’s heart and groin at once.
Turning his head, blinking blearily, he saw a trio of the sirens emerging from the depths of the loch.
Great. Instead of being dragged to his death by a waterhorse, he’d meet his end at the hands of three incredibly beautiful naked women who were already turning his mind into a lust-fogged soup, no matter his battered physical state. Given the two choices, they’d be his preference, except his lady would be far nicer to him in the afterlife if the horse kill ed him.
Firewind whinnied, shifted. He pul ed against the fabric, eliciting a pained grunt from Jacob. But the horse’s ears pricked forward, a universally affable equine expression. With a whuff of sound that sounded like the horse version of a pleased purr, he folded his back legs beneath him, the rest of him following, thudding into a resting pose beside Jacob.
He put his head down. His heavy sigh blew sugary apple bits over Jacob, nostrils flaring wide.
“You are foolish.”
The voice didn’t come from the sirens. Though it was a lovely female voice, like the sound of wind through the trees, he couldn’t turn his gaze from the sirens. He tried hard, knowing that he really needed to get back up on Firewind, get him moving away from here. But his injuries had taken a toll on his will , and it seemed as if the singing was making it worse and better at once.
The sirens drew closer, covered only by their sleek ropes of hair and glossy bits of seaweed and shell adornments in their hair, much like the kelpie himself. They moved to Firewind, surrounding him, petting him, putting tiny white lotus flowers into his mane. The horse made a low, groaning noise in his chest, tossed his head, but submitted to the treatment. Jacob hadn’t realized a kelpie could be entranced by sirens as well. While Firewind didn’t seem as helpless to their song as he did, the horse was definitely being calmed and charmed by the music.
A small, slim hand cradled his face then, trying to pul it away from the mesmerizing women who were smiling at him. They had sharp, pointed teeth much like his own vampire ones. Curious. Also a little creepy, but those voices made everything okay.
The hand on his face tightened, then rudely yanked it to the left so he wasn’t looking at the sirens anymore. He was looking up at a different face, but a familiar one. Catriona. And looking up at her, the sirens’ cal was still difficult, but he could resist.
“Keep looking at me,” she said in that breathy voice. “It will keep you from being completely entranced.”
As helpful as that was, she didn’t look pleased with him. Her mouth tightened into a thin line. “A waterhorse is not a horse of your world. Lord Firewind is a member of the Unseelie court, one of the peers of his kind. Restraint and disrespect, such as what the queen did, drove him mad with rage. He and his family line have been the helpmeet of kings.
The siren song is soothing him now, for he is fond of them and their song is telling him you are not an enemy. However, when it stops, it is likely his anger will return and he will take it out on anyone foolish enough to try and ride him. You,” she added, as if she thought he was too addled to figure out who she meant.
“It’s the queen’s quest. I have to do it or my lady suffers.”
Those large gray-green eyes blinked. Before being locked in her tree, he wondered if she’d ever been seen in his world and mistaken for a space alien, with her slim body and those enormous eyes, the fey features. He realized he might not be thinking quite clearly at the moment, but she was quite lovely.
Always before, he’d thought those UFO pictures made aliens look like oversize
“Vampire…” She was tapping his cheeks with gentle fingers to bring his focus back. Finding her hand, he closed his own over the thin wrist.
“Jacob,” he corrected. “My name is Jacob.” She lifted her other arm, showing a halter with reins attached to it. As she slid it off her shoulder, he noted it was made of braided hair, hair that was a match for Firewind’s dark mane and tail. Behind her, he saw a groomswoman from Rhoswen’s stables.
She was eyeing all of them warily as Catriona rose and moved toward the kelpie.
Jacob tried to struggle to his elbows, concerned for the diminutive dryad as she approached the horse’s massive shoulder. However, she crooned to him, and the sirens increased their song. Oh, crap.
He’d forgotten and taken his eyes off Catriona, such that it made his head spin. He wanted to drag his body over to them and grovel at their feet. He wanted to immerse himself in their scent, those beautiful, fathomless eyes, the soft, willing flesh. It was appalling, to be standing in his own head, seeing himself react this way. One part of him wanted to resist with everything he had, while every other part wanted to go over and drool at their feet like a happy dog. If Lyssa was here, she’d just give him a good, sharp kick in the ribs.
What did it say about him, that he kind of wished for that at the moment?
When the groomswoman squatted next to Jacob, he barely paid her any attention. But she pinched his arm, hard, drawing his impatient attention. She held up two bal's of what looked like softened candle-wax. With a faint smile of amusement, she tucked them into his ears. Once she was done, the sirens’ song was a very faint, pleasant, yearning dream, allowing his will to return. Mostly.